Wa­ters

The Commercial Appeal - - Mlife -

there is a sense of joy, free­dom and in­no­cence within me when I watch and par­tic­i­pate in their soar­ing en­ergy and spirit.”

Voice of the com­mu­nity

Nel­son, 64, was born and grew up on the north side of “Juke Joint Row” in West Mem­phis, but he spent a lot of time with fam­ily and friends in two Mem­phis neigh­bor­hoods — Soulsville and Bing­hamp­ton.

“A 25-cent bus ride from West Mem­phis would place me at my un­cle’s house on McLe­more at Welling­ton where I spent af­ter­noons and week­ends. It was bet­ter than go­ing home.”

Nel­son’s South Mem­phis fam­ily were known as the drum­ming Cun­ning­hams, in­clud­ing his cousin, Carl, who died in the 1967 plane crash with Otis Red­ding. As a kid, Nel­son met such blues leg­ends as Furry Lewis, Howlin’ Wolf and Al­bert King.

“Mem­phis mu­sic was like ther­apy for me,” Nel­son said. “It re­stored my soul.”

Nel­son said his fa­ther spent a lot of time drink­ing and gam­bling at juke joints. Young Henry spent a lot of time try­ing to get away or plan­ning to run away from abuse and ne­glect.

“I look at some of these kids and think, that used to be me,” Nel­son said. “I know a lot of them are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing things that are un­think­able. It’s heart­break­ing. The art gar­den is an oa­sis for them, a place where they can just be kids.”

Grow­ing up, Nel­son found his oa­sis on the ra­dio.

He loved lis­ten­ing to Jack Buck call St. Louis Car­di­nals games on KMOX. “I couldn’t just hear the game, I could smell it. I had my own seat at the ball­park.”

He loved lis­ten­ing to Fa­ther Don Mow­ery “Talk It Out” ev­ery Sun­day evening on WHBQ. “Smile,” Mow­ery told teens across the Mid-South as he signed off. “God loves you and so do I.”

When Nel­son was about 10, he called Fa­ther Don on the air and told him that he wanted to run away from home and why. “He sort of talked me off the ledge,” Nel­son said. “I loved that man.” Mow­ery died ear­lier this year.

Young Henry’s fa­vorite ra­dio sta­tion was WDIA in Mem­phis, the na­tion’s first sta­tion pro­grammed by and for AfricanAmer­i­cans. “Back then, ra­dio truly was the voice of the com­mu­nity,” Nel­son said. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do with my life.”

Bing­hamp­ton with a ‘p’

As a teenager, Nel­son spent a lot of time vis­it­ing friends in Bing­hamp­ton. He loved the neigh­bor­hood’s cozy feel — small houses close to­gether, lots of back­yard gar­dens, shade-tree me­chan­ics and ex­tended fam­i­lies.

“It was the cook­outs, tag foot­ball, and the abil­ity to walk the neigh­bor­hood that al­ways felt like home,” he said. “I’ve al­ways had an affin­ity for Bing­hamp­ton.”

That’s Bing­hamp­ton with a ‘p’. Long­time neigh­bor­hood res­i­dents know there were and are two Bing­hamp­tons.

The older, more de­mo­graph­i­cally di­verse and eco­nom­i­cally blessed west side known as Bing­ham­ton — named for the area’s first set­tler, 19th cen­tury Ir­ish farmer W.H. Bing­ham.

And the younger, more dis­tressed and seg­re­gated east side known as Bing­hamp­ton, lit­er­ally across the tracks where peo­ple set­tled in shot­gun houses, hous­ing projects and low-in­come apart­ment com­plexes.

To­day, the pop­u­la­tion of the west side’s Cen­sus tract 27 is about half for­eign-born and 40 per­cent white, with a me­dian house­hold in­come of about $40,000 and about 10 per­cent un­em­ploy­ment.

The pop­u­la­tion of the east side’s Cen­sus tract 28 is about 85 per­cent African-Amer­i­can with a me­dian house­hold in­come of about $22,000. More than 75 per­cent of the chil­dren live in poverty, and 1 in 4 have been there a year or less.

The Car­pen­ter Art Gar­den is planted in the heart of the east side, a neigh­bor­hood filled with blight and peril, beauty and pos­si­bil­ity in the mid­dle of a city filled with the same.

“Henry has an in­nate sense and un­der­stand­ing of the spirit of the gar­den, why it was cre­ated, and why main­tain­ing that spirit is cru­cial to its con­tin­ued suc­cess, growth,” Harris said. “The gar­den is above all a place to love and be loved and he un­der­stands that.”

The place I call home

Be­fore Harris turned it into an art gar­den for kids seven years ago, the lot on Car­pen­ter was filled with trash and bro­ken glass and served as a short­cut to a drug house one street over.

Be­fore Harris and oth­ers turned it into a neigh­bor­hood arts cen­ter for kids,

A gar­den grows in Bing­hamp­ton

Nel­son left Mem­phis twice over the decades — once for love and once for a job. The com­mu­nity and work he loves al­ways brought him back. It keeps call­ing him. Af­ter he heard Tray’s poem, it called him back to Bing­hamp­ton.

He vis­ited the art gar­den. He be­gan vol­un­teer­ing. Last year he joined the board. Last Mon­day, he took over Harris’ ad­min­is­tra­tive du­ties so she could de­vote more time to the kids and art.

“As an African-Amer­i­can, it is ob­vi­ously im­pos­si­ble to grow up in Mem­phis or Amer­ica and not feel the stress of sep­a­ra­tion — not only be­tween black and white peo­ple but also the served and the un­der-served,” Nel­son said.

“But when you are in­spired by some great pur­pose, some ex­tra­or­di­nary project, all your thoughts break their bounds. Your mind tran­scends lim­i­ta­tions, your con­scious­ness ex­pands in ev­ery di­rec­tion and you find your­self in a new, great and won­der­ful world.

“Dor­mant forces, fac­ul­ties and tal­ents be­come alive, and you dis­cover your­self to be a greater per­son by far than you ever dreamed your­self to be. This place is called an art gar­den, but what we’re do­ing here is art ther­apy. It’s heal­ing and restora­tive phys­i­cally, men­tally and emo­tion­ally.

“That’s why I’m here. I used to be a kid just like these kids. One day one of these kids is go­ing to come back here as an adult and be­come CAG’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor. I am be­yond hope­ful. I can see it. I be­lieve it will hap­pen.”

COM­MER­CIAL AP­PEAL

Kids gather in front of Pur­ple House at the Car­pen­ter Art Gar­den. JIM WE­BER/THE

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